Elevate Difference

The House of Secrets: The Hidden World of the Mikveh

I felt very divided when reading The House of Secrets. On one end of my ever-teetering religious spectrum, I find joy in the empowerment a woman gains while embracing her belief system. On the other end, even though I am a non-Jewish woman, I found the commonalities in my childhood religion and the mikveh to be somewhat disheartening. There is much beauty in the reasons for immersion in the mikveh, such as, the closeness a woman feels to her god, her husband, and the continued spiritual transformation she receives from it. However, what was difficult to digest was the mindset of some of the women in the praxis and the praxis itself. Even still, none of my opinions discount the informative and fascinating job Varda Polak-Sahm does in detailing a world many of us have no clue exists.

A mikveh is an obligatory cleansing from head to foot that is firmly entrenched in Jewish law, from the knowledge needed to enter the mikveh to the items used to cleanse the menstrual impurities that preclude entrance. The women who perform the immersion have the power to turn away those they feel have not obeyed the rules associated with cleanliness and those who are non-Jewish. It is believed that the flesh of a non-Jew will contaminate that of a Jewish bride who must immerse in the mikveh on the eve of her wedding.

Polak-Sahm tells of the relationship between the Jewish woman and the mikveh through her own personal experience and the experiences of the Balaniyot (the woman performing the immersion), as well as the many women who habit the mikveh. For Jewish women who choose to make the mikveh a part of their lives, it provides a spiritual connection that goes beyond religious doctrine.

There are many aspects concerning the mikveh that both trouble and fascinate me. The same menstrual blood that is considered a manifestation of and justification for Eve’s mental promiscuity and corruption of Adam is the same blood that is considered to be a blessing of sorts. This blessing is what allows the Jewish woman to propagate the Jewish population, thus fulfilling her obligation to God, and distinguishes true femininity from the stigma of barrenness. The rules of the mikveh fall under Jewish law—law that was and is set by men.

Of course, it is easy for me to be opinionated about a religion I was neither born into nor chose to adopt. I realize how easy it also is for me to rain down spiritual condescension with claims of backward, patriarchal, and misogynistic belief systems placed on women who choose to remain complacently ignorant. What stands out, however, is the conviction with which these traditions are upheld and Polak-Sahm’s ability to capture the innocence and dedication that these women give in upholding this aspect of Jewish tradition. No matter what we may think of this aspect of Judaism and those who implement it, Polak-Sahm seems to invoke the question of how firmly we are convicted to our own spiritual advancement. Perhaps the balancing act we undergo on a daily basis, to solidify our own connection to the Creator, should leave us with less time to judge those who remain solidly grounded in theirs.

Written by: Olupero R. Aiyenimelo, August 14th 2009

I'm Jewish of the Conservative denomination, and though I have never been to the mikveh, I'm pretty sure that I will go one day. I think the nice thing about Conservative Judaism is that it is an egalitarian movement, and while it is certainly problematic that Jewish law was written by men, Jewish law continues to be interpreted and reinterpreted every day, and people have the opportunity to figure out what meaning ritual has for them individually. So even though the notion that menstrual blood makes one ritually impure is problematic, a woman can go to the mikveh for whatever reason she wants. She may go before Yom Kippur, for example, so that she is ritually pure before her God on this day of atonement (this is something that men or women can do). Feminists have taken patriarchal institutions like weddings and changed them to suit what they believe in. Likewise, women in various places along the spectrum of Jewish observance have the opportunity to reinterpret their traditions according to what they believe.

(None of this should be taken as solid fact in stone, this is just based on my own experience and what I have learned.)

Hey, Olu, can I just tell you how much I have enjoyed this and your other recent review! You have the unique combination of being both a critical thinker and a good writer.